This month, we continue the celebration of our state's literary heritage with a new post by Norbert Krapf in our Indiana Bicentennial Bookshelf blog series. This series is written by Hoosier authors about their favorite Indiana books and writers.
By Norbert Krapf
When I sat down recently at a table on the second floor of the Indy City Market, where I sometimes write in my journal, I expected to look back quickly through a coffee-table book I brought along. My plan was to make notes for a short essay about my “favorite Indiana book.” What happened instead was that once I started reading and looking at The Spirit of the Place: Indiana Hill Country by photographer Darryl Jones and novelist James Alexander Thom, I read straight through the entire book again without once rising from my chair. I could not stop. I must tell you in personal terms, the only way I can, why this full-color cloth book continues to resonate for me on such a profound level. The words and images everywhere in this beautifully designed and printed book, a collaboration by a photographer and a novelist, are full of the spirit of my native place, full of light, insight, and grace. They continue to inspire and influence my writing and thinking.
While re-reading this book with rapt attention, I was reminded that it includes two of Darryl’s images of the southern Indiana landscape which became the covers for my poetry collection The Country I Come From (2002) and my jazz and poetry CD with pianist and composer Monika Herzig, Imagine: Indiana in Music and Words (2007). I didn’t need to be reminded that a quote from the text by Jim became one of four epigraphs by Indiana authors (the others are Scott Russell Sanders, Susan Neville, and Kurt Vonnegut) for my collection Bloodroot: Indiana Poems (2008):
You have roots in a place, or you don’t; you can’t force them.
It helps to be born there, though that’s not your choice to make.
But there are things you do that feed and strengthen these roots.
The four best root fertilizers you can give in your lifetime are sweat and blood and tears and ashes….
And…you can die in that place, and if that is the place where you want to die, then that’s really where your roots are.
I am sure that these words influenced me, with the approval of my wife Katherine, to purchase a plot in Fairview Cemetery, Jasper, Indiana, my hometown, in the region where so many of my poems have been set for the forty-five years I have been writing and publishing. We also bought a stone which we are designing to have carved marking the salient details of our lives.
As I did not have to be reminded, James Alexander Thom was one of the readers to evaluate for Indiana University Press my Bloodroot proposal. Sponsoring editor Linda Oblack liked his written response so well that we decided to make it the Foreword to this selection of 135 of my poems previously collected, plus forty new ones, set in Indiana. When I read the following observations from what became the Foreword, I was tremendously moved:
When a wide collection of [Krapf’s] poems come forth, all the poems become the context for each one, and the whole work rides on deep undercurrents of time, place, ancestry, and work…. Krapf’s spirit of place can be specifically local and immediate while encompassing centuries and other homelands…. The test of “poetry of place” is whether it feels perfectly familiar to a reader who lives there. This reader is a southern Indiana native who feels right at home in Norbert Krapf’s poems.
Several years before, as I have said in an essay about my collaboration with Darryl Jones in Invisible Presence: A Walk through Indiana in Photographs and Poems (2006), Darryl gave to his IU Press editor, Linda Oblack, a copy of my collection The Country I Come From. The cover is Darryl’s panoramic photograph of “Cornfield at sunset, C.R. 600 S., near Freeman, Owen County.” He had a plan. Linda reported that she liked the poems, whereupon he asked if she would consider inviting me to write poems to accompany his Polaroid manipulations and transfers of Indiana scenes for his forthcoming book. She said, “Let him try!” Darryl delivered a CD with his images for the book and the meditative poems started to come and kept coming. When Darryl then added new Polaroid manipulations and transfers of Indiana scenes and people, more poems came. We have a spiritual connection, without which no collaboration can succeed.
When The Spirit of the Place went out of print, I grieved. I urge any reader who does not own a copy of this 1995 book to search the Internet or go to a book dealer, not enough of whom are left, and order a copy. I hate to think of a world in which anyone who loves Indiana, or someone who would like to find out, from the inside, what makes the spirit of this Midwestern state unique, does not have the opportunity to savor this landmark book.
Two universal and timeless statements from my favorite Indiana book will serve as my conclusion. Darryl Jones says in his Photographer’s Preface: “My response to scenes is still pure and direct, but there is a greater depth now because of an understanding of the metaphysical transparency of phenomena… It is an understanding that the elements of nature participate in and reflect the Divine.” James Alexander Thom, after quoting a Shawnee chief in Ohio insisting that his ancestors were here so long that their remains became part of the land and thus “we are this land,” adds: “Those words were the truest and deepest statement of the spirit of place. That is the very essence of being here. Truly being here is not merely occupying space with one’s physical self. It is something sacred. Your sacred obligation to a place you call yours is not to ruin it.” In my view, the best art is sacred because it reminds us, and keeps us mindful, of our sacred obligations.
Norbert Krapf, Indiana Poet Laureate (2008–2010), is Emeritus Professor of English at Long Island University. He is author of Catholic Boy Blues: A Poet's Journal of Healing, American Dreams: Reveries and Revisitations, and Songs in Sepia and Black and White (IUP, 2012). Most recently he wrote the introduction to our bicentennial edition of Riley-Child Rhymes with Hoosier Pictures.
Next month, Bryan Furuness will be blogging for us in the Indiana Bicentennial Bookshelf series. Check back in July for his post!